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Creating a Set of Digital Painting Icons Part 5 - Cityscape Display Icon

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Welcome to the fifth and last tutorial in the "Creating a Set of Digital Painting Icons" series. We will end with an icon that depicts both a tool and a typical application of digital painting: a large display with a finished matte painting.

The screen will be drawn in a few easy steps using familiar Photoshop tools. We will then employ techniques and workflows utilized by professional matte painters to create a finished cityscape. Far from being an exercise on matte painting, this tutorial nonetheless gives us a peek into this fascinating branch of digital arts.

You can view the final image preview below.

Tutorial and Series Details

Below are the five icons we are creating in this series.


Take a look at the icon we'll be creating in this tutorial, which is a large LED display with a finished cityscape matte painting on screen.

  • Program: Adobe Photoshop CS2 and later
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 1.5 hours

Step 1

Today's operating systems give us the chance to work on big icons. Open a new document and set the canvas to 512px by 512px. Set the foreground color to light gray. Select the Rounded Rectangle Tool (U) from the toolbar, make sure the Radius is set to 10px, and draw a 480px by 300px rectangle at the center of the canvas. This will be the outer frame of the display.

Step 2

Select the frame's pixels by Command-clicking the thumbnail in the Layers palette. From the Select menu choose Modify > Contract and enter 2 pixels (2a). Fill the selection with black on a new layer. This is the glass that covers the LCD panel (2b).

Step 3

Command-click the glass and contract the selection by 1 pixel (3a). Fill the selection with a white-to-black vertical gradient on a new layer, which we'll call "reflection" (3b). Select the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) and make a trapezoidal selection around the right half of the display (3c). Apply it as a mask to the "reflection" layer, which should be set to the Screen blending mode and 20% Opacity (3d).

Step 4

Using the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) create a new layer above the "glass" and below the "reflection" and fill it with a placeholder color, for example light blue (4a). Name it "screen." Add a pinhole webcam at the top of the screen and a logo of your choice at the bottom. Let's make the logo glow, too (4b and 4c).

Step 5

Now we need to draw the support. Draw a light gray rounded rectangle just like we created the frame at the beginning (5a). Pick the Direct Selection Tool (A) from the toolbar. Select the top points and nudge them toward the center, tapering the support (5b). Add a vertical Gradient Overlay style to simulate the shadow cast by the display and the curvature of the support. Refer to images 5c and 5d for the settings. The result (5e) looks good but of course we need to add some thickness to the support.

Step 6

Duplicate the "support" layer. Move the copy below it and name it "support thickness" (6a). Add a Gradient Overlay style to shade the rounded corners (6b, 6c). The support is complete (6d).

Step 7

To finish the display we need to draw the shadow it casts on the ideal floor beneath it. Create a horizontal black ellipse (7a) and set it to Multiply, 50% Opacity (7b). Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and enter 10 pixels (7c). An Opacity of 50% is a good value to start with, but in this case the shadow is too strong so let's reduce it to 20% (7d). Now choose the Blur Tool from the toolbar and soften the edges of the shadow with multiple strokes until it resembles image 7e. The display is now finished.

Step 8

Create a layer group called "PAINTING" (8a). I use lowercase for layer names and uppercase for group names. It makes them easy to distinguish when the layer stack becomes long. Command-click the "screen" (8b) and add this selection as a mask to the layer group (8c). This way we ensure our matte painting won't bleed over the glass.

Step 9

We will now create a very basic matte painting that features a cityscape on a shoreline set at dusk. Let's start. Place the "screen" layer inside the "PAINTING" group and rename it "background" (9a). Using a Gradient Overlay (9b, 9c) we transform the placeholder blue into a complex gradient that represents the sky at dusk. For the sake of an icon we don't need to be extremely accurate. We have quite a few colors, though, top to bottom: dark blue, blue, light hazy blue for the horizon, purple for the setting sun and a deep blue for the sea (9d).

Step 10

In order to draw the buildings that make up the cityscape we need perspective guides. Using the Line Tool (U) and a bright green color, draw a series of perspective lines, all converging to a focus point on the left. Make sure the point lies on the horizon (10a). Group the lines.

Next draw a series of parallel horizontal lines, using a contrasting color like red (10b). Group the red lines too. Now hit Command + T to invoke Free Transform, right-click on the canvas and choose Perspective. Modify the lines' perspective so they converge to a focus point on the horizon, far to the right outside the screen (10c). Our perspective grid is now ready. Group the green and red lines together and reduce their Opacity to 30% to make them barely visible (10d).

Step 11

Pick a dark blue color. On a new layer, paint the shoreline using the Brush Tool (B) set to 100% hardness. Fill the layer up to the horizon and make sure the top is flat and horizontal. Hold down Shift to paint perfectly horizontal or vertical strokes (11a).

Now comes the fun part! Create a new layer. Using the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) make multiple selections and fill them with the same dark blue from the shoreline. Try to create organic groups of taller and shorter skyscrapers (11b). Throw in some lowrises for variety. Continue the process until you're satisfied with your cityscape.

Step 12

The buildings need to be adapted to the perspective grid. Specifically, their tops have to be cut off along the perspective lines. Do that by using the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to select and erase the extra pixels (12a). When you're finished you will see how the city slowly takes shape (12b). My composition admittedly is not so good, I hope you did better!

The key here is to have a couple of tall buildings up front and enough variation in order to avoid regular patterns as the buildings recede toward the horizon. The beauty of this method is that it's so easy and quick to build the cityscape that it's no trouble to start from scratch until you like what you see. Let's push forward.

Step 13

The buildings are lit from the front. This means that we have to paint the front facades with the purply-orange light of dusk (13a). Do this on a separate layer masked with the "buildings" layer. Alt-click between them (13b). Make sure you blur the base of the frontlit facades so they fade out into the lower levels of the city (13c).

Step 14

If you thought creating the buildings was fun, you haven't seen nothing yet! We will now use Photoshop's amazing brush engine to quickly paint hundreds of variously lit windows on our buildings.

Create a new document and set the canvas to 3px by 6px. Fill the canvas with black (14a). Type Command + A to select all then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. In the pop-up dialog name the brush "windows" (14b). The brush has been added to the default presets. Let's go back to our main document.

Step 15

Hit D to load the default colors and X to swap them: the foreground will be white and the background black. Now type B to select the Brush Tool and hit F5 to open the Brushes window. From the Brush Presets choose the "windows" brush we just created (15a). Set up a very small size (3 pixels) and a very large spacing (250%) from the Brush Tip Shape option pane (15b). As you can see in the preview window at the bottom, the brush strokes will leave a trail of spaced rectangles instead of a continuous mark.

We want the windows to have different degrees of light intensity so let's turn on Opacity Jitter. Choose a high enough value like 75%. Check out how the opacity varies randomly in the preview window (15c). The brush is all set!

Step 16

Create a new layer. Paint vertical strokes by holding down Shift. See how our brush creates evenly spaced, variously lit windows? To those of you who think icons belong only in the vector world, try doing that with Illustrator! Different software, different workflows, different results (16a).

Fill an entire facade using parallel strokes. Hit Command + T then right-click on the canvas and choose Distort. Move the points up and down to match the shape of the facade (16b). If you zoom out to 100% you can see that the windows follow the perspective grid also (16c).

Step 17

Copy the layer you just painted, move it to the left and use Distort to adapt it to the facade below it (17a). Do you get the drift now? Paint new window layers with the brush set to progressively smaller sizes, conform them to the perspective grid then duplicate and adapt them to the remaining facades until you've covered all the buildings (17b). If this were a real matte painting we would need to add more color variation, refine the shape of the buildings and create different window patterns, but we are creating an icon so we can be satisfied with what we have so far.

Step 18

Set up a small greenish yellow brush (18a). Turn on Opacity Jitter and choose the Fade option. Using the preview at the bottom pick a value that looks good, like 15 (18b). Our paint strokes will now fade out. On a separate layer paint some lights at the top of the higher buildings using upward strokes (18c). Add some lights at the base of the buildings on another layer (18d).

Step 19

Set the "top lights" layer to Linear Dodge (19a) and the "base lights" layer to Overlay (19b). Now the light setup is more balanced (19c).

Step 20

Of course the water reflects the buildings so here we go. Group all the pertinent layers as "BUILDINGS" (20a). Duplicate the group. Name the copy "BUILDINGS REFLECTION" and hit Command + E to merge the group. Move it below the "shoreline" and flip it vertically (20b).

Step 21

Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Set the Angle to 0 (horizontal blur) and Distance to 6 pixels (21a). The reflection is now appropriately blurred (21b). The water surface is way too calm. Let's remedy that. Go to Filter > Distort > Ripple and experiment with the values using the preview for reference (21c). Now the reflections look more realistic (21d).

Step 22

The matte painting is all but finished. Some clouds need to be added to the sky. Pick a yellowish-white color. Select the Brush Tool (B) and enter the Brush window (F5). Pick a soft, round brush and increase the spacing (22a). Set Opacity Jitter to Pen Pressure (22b). Activate Scatter and again set it to Pen Pressure (22c). If you don't have a tablet you won't see that option. Instead set both controls to Off and use different opacities for the brush strokes to achieve variation. Paint the clouds on their own layer. Take your time to obtain a good result (22d).

Step 23

We can now unhide the reflection on the display and we can declare the icon finished.


This was the last installment in the "Creating a Set of Digital Painting Icons Set" series. We created a simple LCD display with basic shapes and layer styles. We filled our gorgeous screen with a nice cityscape matte painting, created with an eye for perspective, light direction, and some clever brush tricks!

I hope you enjoyed this icon series as much as I enjoyed making it. We created five icons whose styles range from the sketchy to the photorealistic. This gave us the opportunity to explore many tools, techniques and workflows that confirmed what a friend Photoshop is to us creative professionals!

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